Prominent Haredi MK urges Netanyahu to stop Knesset members visiting Temple Mount

Chair of UTJ’s Degel HaTorah faction Moshe Gafni says diplomatic, security fallout must be taken into consideration; pans visits to holy site as sacrilege, not sign of sovereignty

Degel Hatorah MK Moshe Gafni leads a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 8, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Degel Hatorah MK Moshe Gafni leads a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 8, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A top ultra-Orthodox lawmaker urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday to stop Jewish Knesset members from visiting the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, arguing that such trips are a diplomatic and security hazard as well as sacrilegious.

Moshe Gafni, who leads the Degel HaTorah faction within the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) coalition party, sent his appeal after several MKs and a minister visited the Mount on Thursday to mark Jerusalem Day, including some from Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

A far-right MK who was among those who entered the Mount on Thursday responded by telling Gafni he could leave the government if he was unhappy, and must then consider himself responsible for bringing it down.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site for Jews, as the location of two biblical temples, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount is the third holiest shrine in Islam, turning the area into a major source of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Muslims deny any Jewish connection to the site and view all Israeli presence there as provocative.

Most observant Jews refrain from entering the Temple Mount due to its holiness and since it isn’t known where exactly the temple’s holiest place — where entry carries a penalty of divine death — lies. Others say it is possible to avoid the general area where it lay and encourage Jews to visit the site as a sign of sovereignty and to fight for the right to pray there.

Ministers and lawmakers from Likud and Otzma Yehhuit were among crowds who visited the Temple Mount Thursday, celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. Hundreds of Jewish visitors entered the holy site, including Negev and Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf and MK Yitzhak Kroizer — both from the Otzma Yehudit party led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — as well as Likud MKs Dan Illouz, Amit Halevi and Ariel Kallner.

Noting that there have been other recent visits by Knesset members and ministers — most notable Ben Gvir’s visit to the site in January, which sparked intense condemnation from Palestinians and the Arab world — Gafni wrote to Netanyahu that “just today, a large number of elected officials from different factions in the Knesset went there.”

“The decision is in your hands,” he said. “I am appealing and asking you to prevent the ascent to the Temple Mount, both due to the political issue regarding the attitude of the countries of the world in allowing it, and due to the security issue and the incitement that exists as a result, mainly in the Muslim world, but not only in it.”

“You know how to prevent unnecessary tensions, and I ask you again today on behalf of many of your partners: please do not allow the situation to change regarding the ascent to the Temple Mount, the place of our temple,” Gafni asked. “The main thing is that there is no reason for this, it does not show sovereignty, on the contrary, it constitutes sacrilege of the place most connected to the Jewish people and most sacred to them.”

Jewish men pray as they exit the Temple Mount site on May 18, 2023 (Screen grab used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Gafni has made similar requests of Netanyahu in the past, including urging that all visits by Jews be banned.

Kroizer of Otzma Yehudit told Gafni in response: “You are welcome to leave the coalition.”

“Everyone will see who caused the downfall of the right-wing government,” Kroizer wrote.

Earlier, Kroizer tweeted a photo of himself during the morning visit to the Mount, writing: “Whoever rules the Mount rules the land.”

On Thursday morning, a lawmaker from Likud expressed his opposition to Temple Mount visits by elected officials.

MK David Bitan said it would be inappropriate for lawmakers from his party to visit the flashpoint site to mark Jerusalem Day — before three of them did just that.

“Netanyahu could have called them and told them not to go,” Bitan told the Ynet news site.

“It is not proper for Likud MKs to visit the Temple Mount. This is not what should be done. People have become extremists,” he told Army Radio, adding that he saw no issue with lawmakers joining the separate Flag March through the Old City.

Likud MK David Bitan, chair of the Knesset Economic Committee leads a meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Thursday visits came as security forces geared up for a potential renewal of violence, ahead of the controversial march through Jerusalem, including the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, slated to go ahead despite recent tensions.

Adding to the fraught atmosphere, this Flag March parade comes on the heels of last week’s protracted fight between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza, which saw nearly 1,500 rockets shot into Israel and hundreds of airstrikes on targets in the Strip.

Visits to the Temple Mount are made under informal understandings according to which Jews are allowed to visit the site — at certain hours, under strict restrictions and through a predetermined route — but not to pray there.

The longstanding arrangement has frayed in recent years as Muslims designate new areas of the Mount as mosques, and as groups of Jews, including hardline religious nationalists, have regularly prayed at the site. The Israeli government, nonetheless, says it is committed to maintaining the status quo.

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